This is a reproduction of a piece that I wrote for the local press after watching the first episode of Gunpowder.
When Gunpowder first aired a few weeks ago it reportedly shocked audiences with its graphic scenes of capital punishment. People particularly objected to an execution scene in the first episode, where a women was stripped naked and crushed to death, and a man was hung, eviscerated and his body chopped into quarters. Viewers were split between those who found the brutality gratuitous and unnecessary, and those who welcomed a historical drama that didn’t shy away from our gory, violent past.
A still from the execution scene that some viewers thought crossed a line.
I’m no expert on how violent television programmes should be, but I can say that this was a historically accurate representation – judicial execution was a part of Tudor and Stuart life, and killings were bloody affairs. Those who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty in court did face the hideous ordeal of ‘pressing to death’ – that is being laden with weights and stones until the victim either spoke to enter a plea, or died of suffocation. Although the character who suffered this fate in Gunpowder is fictional, her death appears to have been closely based on the execution of the catholic Margaret Clitheroe, who was accused of harbouring priests in 1586. Similarly, men convicted of high treason were hung, drawn and quartered, a punishment that reflected their deplorable crime of attacking the monarch’s authority. And the manner of execution was suitably deplorable – one historian estimated that the process of hanging, disembowelling and quartering a person would take at least half an hour, and there are contemporary reports that the smell and sight provoked horror and disgust in audiences at the time as well. Yet execution days could also be rowdy affairs, with crowds gathering to vent their anger at the victim, whilst pie men and ballad sellers circulated, taking advantage of the chance to earn a few extra pence. In some cases, public executions seem to have taken on an atmosphere of carnival. Continue reading
Last year I wrote a series of posts on memorialisation and history, inspired by my discovery of Exeter’s memorial to two sixteenth-century martyrs. I uncovered the story of the two local victims remembered on the monument, the life of its colourful creator, and I explored why commemoration of religious martyrs suddenly became widespread in nineteenth and twentieth-century England. Over the summer, free from the golden reins of teaching, I found myself in two locations that provided more pieces of the puzzle.
University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
The view north from St Mary’s, looking into Radcliffe Square.
I was lucky enough to spend a week working in the Bodleian, and during a lunch break I took a tour around the University Church just opposite. In 1556 the church still functioned as a court and the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was tried for heresy there by Mary Tudor’s Catholic government. Cranmer was one of the key architects of the early English Reformation, chiefly responsible for the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer – the latter was eventually the basis for the Elizabethan 1559 version. Cranmer refused to abjure his faith (technically he recanted, but then went back on his original recantation) and was burnt to death on Broad Street in Oxford, just round the corner from the church – and of course very close to the site of the Oxford Martyr Memorial today. Continue reading
This short post is inspired by Laura’s brilliant mini-series on ‘Memorial and History’, which took its own inspiration from her discovery of Exeter’s 1909 memorial to the Marian martyrs Thomas Benet and Agnes Prest.
Hearing Laura talk about Exeter made me curious about the city where I was born and raised, and which bears the somewhat ignominious dual-honour of being the location of the first documented case of medieval blood-libel (a false accusation of ritual murder against the Jewish community), and also of witnessing the execution of one of the first evangelical martyrs of the reformation. Continue reading
This is a final post in a short series relating to Exeter’s martyrs memorial, the others are on the following:
- The story of the two martyrs commemorated on the memorial, Thomas Benet and Agnes Prest.
- Our main source of information about Tudor martyrs, John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, and it’s own role as a memorial to the past.
- Other English examples of monuments to martyrs and when and why they were erected.
- The remarkable Harry Hems, designer of Exeter’s monument and an important collector of historical artefacts in his own right.
In this final post I conclude with some thoughts on the ways that objects and places are invested with meaning, and the relationship between space, memory and history.
My final question about Exeter’s martyr memorial was: what is ‘Livery Dole’? The plaque on the monument stated that Thomas Benet had suffered at ‘Livery Dole’ but although I knew what an aircraft livery was, or could countenance a livery stable, but otherwise I was drawing a blank. Exeter Memories came to my rescue again: Livery Dole is an ancient triangular site between what is now Heavitree Road and Magdalen Road. It was used as a place for executions – the last took place in 1818, when the unfortunate Samuel Holmyard was hanged for passing a forged City Bank one pound note.
W. Spreat lithograph from 1850 showing the Dennis almshouses before they were replaced.
Liverydole now made sense – it meant that the Exeter memorial had therefore been erected near to the spot where Thomas Benet had been burnt to death. Hence my final post is about the meanings and significance that are attached to particular places and features of the landscape. All of the Protestant monuments that I have uncovered are erected as close as possible to the original site of the martyrdom, they are a deliberate attempt to attach particular memories to those sites, for later generations to read. Nearby, Heavitree’s almshouses represent a similar attempt to shape historical memory – they were erected in 1591 by Sir Robert Dennis, by tradition in penance for the part his ancestor had played in the execution of Thomas Benet in 1531. The ancestor in question was Sir Thomas Dennis, who had been the Sheriff of Exeter at the time and who had sentenced Benet to death. This act of charity proved that the current Sir Dennis was now firmly on the side of the true Church, unlike his unenlightened Catholic ancestor. Continue reading
This is the fourth post in a series of posts relating to Exeter’s martyrs memorial, the others are on the following:
Today’s question is – what do we know about the creation and placing of Exeter’s martyr monument? The endlessly informative Exeter memories website furnished me with more details about the city’s own specimen. Funded by public conscription, it was designed by Exeter’s Harry Hems (above), a London born master sculptor and wood carver, who made Exeter his home. Continue reading
This is the third in a series of posts relating to Exeter’s martyr memorial. The first post, contains the details of the martyrs themselves, the second, is on John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments.
What I really wanted to know about Exeter’s martyr monument, was who paid for and created it – when was it erected, how and why? A third plaque on the memorial yielded some information:
To the glory of God & in honour of his faithful witnesses who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned for love to Christ and in vindication of the principles of the Protestant Reformation this monument was erected by public subscription AD 1909. They being dead yet speak.
Thus the obelisk dates from the twentieth-century, which makes sense – the English Reformation was profoundly iconoclastic and it is hard to imagine money being spent on erecting monuments in an age when destruction of imagery was a mark of Protestant identity. In fact the image of Agnes Prest from the 1887 edition of Foxe that I mentioned in my previous post supports just this point. It depicts a visit that Prest paid to Exeter Cathedral, where she met a ‘cunning’ Dutch craftsmen who was apparently repairing the images and sculptures that had been disfigured during the previous, iconoclastic reign of Edward VI. Prest supposedly said to the Dutchman ‘what a mad man art thou… to make them new noses, which within a few dayes shall all lose their heades’. In response to this rather prophetic prediction of further reform, the stonemason replied with a well thought out theological argument: ‘Thou art a whore!’. Quick as a flash, Prest replied ‘Nay, thy Images are whores, and thou art a whore hunter: for doth not God say you goe a whoring after straunge Gods, figures of your owne making?’ Continue reading
This is the second of a series of posts on issues relating to Exeter’s martyr memorial. The first post discusses the details of the martyrs themselves.
Foxe’s [?] monumental [?] achievement.
The information about Exeter’s martyrs that I related in yesterday’s post was taken from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments,
popularly known as the ‘Book of Martyrs’. Actes
was first published in 1563, five years into the reign of Elizabeth I. It is a work of Protestant history and martyrology, mainly consisting of a polemical account of the sufferings of evangelicals under the Catholic Church.
I’ve previously discussed images of martyrdom on the monster, in this post I am more concerned with as a history of the ‘true’ Church. Continue reading